Theresa May has set herself the breathtakingly ambitious task of making it illegal to be annoying. It would be a difficult enough task if it was confined to adults. After all, a short gaol sentence managed the seemingly impossible task of making Chris Huhne even more annoying than he was before. Be that as it may, her objective is no more and no less than to put a stop to the annoying behaviour not only of adults but of children too. We must hope that her crackdown is successful.
Under S.1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill, which is drawing close to the end of its parliamentary journey, courts will be empowered to grant an injunction “against a person aged 10 or over” if satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that he or she:
“has engaged or threatens to engage… in conduct capable of of causing … annoyance to any person.”
Those of us who find the mere sight and sound of children annoying will be reassured that they will not actually need to “have engaged” in annoying conduct before an injunction can be slapped on. It will be enough that they are, on the balance of probabilities, threatening to do so. And nor will it be necessary for their threatened conduct actually to be annoying, so long as it is “capable” of having that effect. It is very much to Ms May’s credit that she has closed these possible loopholes.
A child who breaches the injunction will be punished for contempt of court, a very serious matter. For the sort of behaviour that really gets on one’s nerves one hopes it would result in a custodial sentence of some length.
But although her crack-down on annoying children is welcome, I fear that it is too little, too late. Almost anyone with experience of children will know that, in general, the younger they are the more annoying they tend to be. The focus of the Bill should not be on ten year olds but on much younger children. Fans of Richmal Crompton will remember that although the fictional William Brown was 11 and could be quite annoying, Violet Elizabeth Bott was only 6 when she repeatedly threatened to engage in conduct that was capable of being not just very annoying indeed, but positively exasperating: namely to “thcream and thcream and thcream until I’m thick.” Ms May’s law could put a stop to William’s activities but it would be powerless against Miss Bott’s threats.
Moreover, there are some quite unnecessary restrictions on who will be able to take out the injunction. The police will be able to do so, along with local authorities and “housing providers.” The Environment Agency and The Natural Resources Body for Wales are obvious, as well as vulnerable, targets for the attention of annoying children (they threaten to swim in their rivers, sometimes screaming loudly with pleasure, and they pick the juicy Welsh blackberries) and these organisations will now be able to fight back with the full support of the law. Wisely, Ms May has also remembered Transport for London, which will now be able to put an end once and for all to such childish nonsense as singing on buses, or threatening to talk too loudly on the tube during school trips. That will remove a source of considerable irritation to the old curmudgeon community.
Unfortunately, however, the list does not include the sort of hard-working men and women who are most likely to be annoyed by children. Nothing is more irritating after a hard day’s work, than to have to deal with the demands of tired and demanding children. European law has made it all but impossible to smack them. So, as well as withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights, Ms May needs to make it clear that a future Conservative government would ensure that injunctive relief will be available to all parents, irrespective of the age of their children. The law should not be emasculated when it comes to crying babies.